Key measures in the flagship Welfare Reform Bill represent a major assault on the incomes and independence of working age blind, partially sighted and other disabled people, says a major new report launched today (31 January 2011).
'More Than Meets the Eye', published by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) on behalf of seven sight loss charities, is calling on the Government to work with them to achieve the fairness and justice they promised in their reforms.
The report's analysis highlights three key measures likely to have the greatest impact on blind and partially sighted people.
* Replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with a Personal Independence Payment. This could mean 20 per cent fewer people able to receive the benefit, including up to 12,000 blind or partially sighted people.
* Time limiting contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to one year for those in the Work Related Activity Group. Yet 92 per cent of employers say they would find it 'difficult' or 'impossible' to employ somebody blind or partially sighted.
* Linking benefits to the Consumer Price Index (rather than the higher Retail Price Index). For those currently claiming higher rate DLA care this could represent a loss of up to £360 a year - ten days home care - while those on lower rate DLA mobility may lose the equivalent of 20 Taxicard journeys a year.
In addition, there will be cuts to Housing Benefit, reduced access to Legal Aid and Access to Work support, and cuts to local authority budgets.
Despite the promise of £2 billion for social care, the reality is that many blind and partially sighted people are deemed to have 'low' or 'moderate' needs, so they will struggle to access local authority care services, say RNIB and the other agencies.
Many rely on their extra cost benefits to remain independent. The combination of cuts to benefits and to services provided by local authorities will simply move blind and partially sighted people further from work and independence.
Steve Winyard, RNIB Head of Campaigns and Policy commented: "The Government risks failing its own fairness test - reforming welfare to save money but at the expense of those they have promised to protect. Blind and partially sighted people need support to secure employment and to manage the extra costs of living with a disability, not the threat of losing their benefits. Yet like a perfect storm, the Welfare Reform Bill will pass through Parliament at precisely the same time as local authorities make swingeing cuts."
One person effected, Mrs Gill, is married with two young children. She is partially sighted and recently had a corneal graft. The healing process is slow and her eye condition may then require a transplant in her other eye. She says: "I have a permanent job in a bank and my employer has agreed I can return when my vision improves. Yet I have to attend interviews to continue to receive ESA and I've been advised to apply for other jobs. I don't want to lose the job I have, but I can't afford to lose my ESA. I don't know what I'll do if it is stopped after one year. If I was well enough to work, I'd go back to my old job."
Ian Jentle, who is partially sighted, adds: "My DLA does not stretch far enough to cover the additional costs of living with sight loss as it is, but these reforms could mean I get even less. This would erode my quality of life and could put pressure on my relationships if I have to rely on others to get around. Will I simply be forced to choose between travel to do my weekly shopping or a sighted guide to support my work?"
Eugene Grant from the politics think-tank Demos commented: "It is clear that the Government's cuts in welfare support will have a disproportionately damaging effect on disabled people - their income, financial security and wellbeing. There is a real risk that cutting critical support for disabled families - and at a time of entrenched financial hardship - will push this group even further to the isolated margins of society. This report adds to a growing evidence base that shows the Government cannot follow through on its Big Society agenda and its commitment to give disabled people control and independence by stripping away the very benefits and services that enable them to take part in our communities."
Simon Barrow, co-director of the beliefs and values think-tank Ekklesia, said: "Before the May 2010 General Election, David Cameron was challenged on his party's policies and attitudes to people - including children - living with physical disabilities or having other special needs. Politicians of all parties often make the right noises about inclusion, but the litmus test is action. Promoting voluntary action without backing it up through genuine empowerment and economic resources, while implementing cuts that hit the most vulnerable worst, is contradictory and unfeasible. The 'More Than Meets the Eye' report from Britain's major sight loss charities illustrates the huge gap between rhetoric and reality in current government policy and performance."
To download a copy of the 'More Than Meets The Eye' report go to: www.rnib.org.uk/campaigns